What a Wonderful World
"It's kind of fun to do the impossible," Walt Disney once said. He certainly made it look that way. Here, to mark Uncle Walt's birthday, are 20 facts that may surprise you about the legendary animation pioneer and film producer who built an entertainment empire on a cartoon mouse.
His Mouse Wasn't Always Mickey
Walt Disney called an early version of the character Mortimer Mouse, but his wife Lillian convinced him that Mickey was a better name. Mickey debuted in the 1928 short "Steamboat Willie." Mortimer later resurfaced in a different form, as Mickey's rival for Minnie's affections. Fun fact: Mickey Rooney claimed that Mickey Mouse was named after him. That's a myth.
He Was—and Then Wasn't—the Voice of Mickey
Disney himself provided the voice of his most iconic character for nearly two decades, from 1928 to 1947. But years of smoking made Walt's voice too rough to continue, so Scottish voice actor Jimmy MacDonald took over in 1948. MacDonald voiced Mickey for nearly 30 years, until he was replaced in 1977.
He Loved Hot Dogs
Walt's housekeeper kept a stock of hot dogs on hand because the Hollywood legend snacked on them all the time. Mickey Mouse's first words in 1929's "The Karnival Kid" were "Hot dog!" Years later, when deciding where to place trash cans at Disneyland, Walt measured out 25 steps from each hot dog stand—the precise number of steps it took him to eat a wiener.
He Proved the Skeptics Wrong
It took four years and $1.5 million (three times the original budget) to produce "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.," the first feature-length animated movie with both color and sound. Hollywood insiders didn't think the idea would work—they dismissed the project as "Disney's Folly"—but Walt ignored them.. "Snow White" became 1937's biggest film and the most successful sound movie to date.
He Blamed Himself for His Mother's Death
In 1938, after he hit the big time with "Snow White," Walt bought his parents a house. Within weeks, there was a problem with the furnace. Disney sent a team of repairmen to fix it, but the problem persisted and his mother died from carbon monoxide poisoning as a result. His father also fell ill, but he survived. Walt never got over the tragic accident and rarely spoke about it.
Many of His Characters Don't Have Mothers
Among the motherless characters in classic Disney movies are Snow White, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Peter Pan and, of course, Bambi. Observers have attributed this to Walt's feelings of guilt following the death of his own mother, but in fact she died after some of these characters were created.
He Won More Oscars Than Anybody
During his lifetime, Walt won an extraordinary 23 Academy Awards, and he was nominated 59 times. In 1939, he received a full-size Oscar along with seven miniature statuettes "for creating 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.'" A 10-year-old Shirley Temple presented the special award to him. Said Disney. "I'm so proud I think I'll bust."
He Made Propaganda Films
During World War II, Walt produced animated shorts designed to bolster patriotism in the United States and cast a dim light on its enemies. "Der Fuerher's Face" (1943) featured Donald Duck making fun of the Nazis. A year earlier Donald appeared in another short, "The New Spirit," which was commissioned by the U.S. Treasury to encourage Americans to support the war effort by paying their taxes.
He Feared the Red Menace
During the Red Scare after World War II, Walt helped form the anti-communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. While serving as the group's vice president, he testified against striking labor unions in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Walt even accused the Screen Actors Guild of being a communist front.
His "Wonderful World" Was a Hard Sell
When Walt and his brother and business partner Roy pitched a Disney anthology TV series, CBS and NBC turned them down flat. But ABC went for the idea, and the series premiered on a Wednesday night in October 1954. It later moved to Sunday and aired for decades under various names, such as "Walt Disney Presents" and "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color." Money brought in by the show in its first season helped to fund the opening of Disneyland in 1955.
Even to the Mouseketeers, He Was Never "Mr. Disney"
There's a reason only first names appear on the name tags worn by Disneyland employees. It's because Walt himself hated being called Mr. Disney. He used to tell employees that the only person they should refer to as "Mister" was the company's lawyer.
He Had a Secret
When Disneyland opened in 1955, Walt watched the throngs of people passing through the front gate from a secret apartment he had built above the fire station on Main Street. He and his family would often spend time in that apartment, but Walt rarely invited others inside. The place is there to this day, with a lamp in the window always left on in Walt's honor.
He Said No to McDonald's
Walt and Ray Kroc served together in the Red Cross during World War I (both lied about their age when they enlisted). Decades later, after Kroc gained control of McDonald's, he wrote a letter to Walt asking if he could open a hamburger shop at Disneyland. Although McDonald's eventually made its way into Disney theme parks (the fast-food chain has a big presence at the one outside Paris, shown here), that came much later. Some McDonald's people maintained that Kroc nixed the deal when Walt demanded that he increase the price of French fries by 50 percent, but there's no evidence of that.
He Banned Facial Hair
Walt wore a mustache from the time he was 25, but nobody who worked at his theme parks was allowed to do the same. He insisted on a clean-cut, wholesome look for Disneyland employees. At times, that rule even applied to guests. In 1964, the Byrds' Roger McGuinn was turned away from Disneyland because his hair was too long. It wasn't until 2000, decades after Walt's death, that employees were permitted to grow a mustache. In 2012, short goatees and "baby beards" began to be allowed.
He Was Seriously Into Trains
This colorful locomotive at a Disney resort that opened in Shanghai in 2016 reflects one of Walt's great passions. Not only did he have an elaborate model train set in his office, but in 1948 Walt installed a ridable miniature "Carolwood Pacific Railroad" in his backyard. He had an engineer from Disney Studios build the steam locomotive, which he named "Lilly Belle" after his wife, Lillian.
He Wanted Nothing to Do With Hitchcock
In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock wanted to use Disneyland as a location for "The Blind Man," which was to be his first film after "Psycho." Walt refused. He gave strict orders that the director of "that disgusting movie 'Psycho'" never be allowed to film in the theme park. James Stewart then dropped out of the project, and "The Bland Man" was never made. Fun fact: Hitchcock later hired Walt's friend (and Mickey Mouse co-creator) Ub Iwerks to do special effects work on "The Birds."
His Housekeeper Was a Millionaire
For three decades, Thelma Howard worked as the Disney family's live-in housekeeper and cook. Every December, Walt gave her Disney stock as a Christmas gift, and when Thelma died in 1994, her stock was worth more than $9 million. In her will, she left half of it to her son and the rest to charity.
You'll Never Believe His Last Words
Shortly before he died, Walt scribbled "Kurt Russell" on a sheet of paper. Nobody knows why, least of all Russell, who was then a relatively unknown child actor working for Walt's studio. Kurt found out about the incident a few years after Walt's death when a Disney employee showed him the piece of paper. "She was pointing out that that's the last thing he wrote," Russell said. "That's the only thing I know."
No, His Body Wasn't Frozen
After Walt Disney died in 1966, just 10 days after his 65th birthday, word circulated that his body had been preserved through cryogenics. The rumor stuck, and even today many people believe the story to be true. It isn't. Walt's body was cremated and his remains were buried at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.
His Mouse Has a Star on the Walk of Fame
In 1978, the year of his 50th birthday, Mickey Mouse became the first cartoon character ever to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Forty years later, in 2018, Minnie was honored with a star of her own.
His Philosophy in a Nutshell
"If you can dream it, you can do it."
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